With the War of 1812 going badly and thousands of British troops and their Indian allies advancing in northwestern Ohio during the spring of 1813, desertion was a capital offense along the frontier.
On June 11, 1813, two men convicted of desertion were marched to a field just west of the Franklinton graveyard on Sandusky Street and ordered to sit in their coffins.
All the soldiers in Franklinton stood nearby, ordered to watch the execution as an example. But what the soldiers and other witnesses would see turned out to have a surprise ending.
One witness, Charles Grooms, later told son James that six armed soldiers stood in front of each condemned man as he was blindfolded.
As was the custom, three of the guns in each execution squad were loaded with powder and ball, and three with just powder. All the muskets were picked from a stack so that no one would know who actually fired the fatal shot.
The Freeman’s Chronicle, the first paper in what is now Columbus, reported on the “Awful Scene” a few days later:
“A man named William Fish, a private in Captain Hopkins’s company of U.S. Light Dragoons, was SHOT at this place on Saturday last for the crime of desertion and threatening the life of his captain. We never before witnessed so horrid a spectacle; and cannot, in justice to our feelings, attempt a description of it.”
The newspaper then went on to say what happened to the other man: He was “conducted to his coffin, and the cap placed over his eyes, in which situation he remained until Fish was shot; his reprieve was then read.”
Grooms said that six muskets were fired at the survivor but none was loaded with shot. Grooms told his son that the survivor was terribly frightened.